December 27, 1863 (Sunday)
The Confederate Army of Tennessee was in Dalton, Georgia because that’s where its former commander, Braxton Bragg, had stopped it. Also, it was where the pursuing Federal columns under General Grant had ceased their hue and cry. For the winter, it seemed, Dalton was to be a place of relative safety. But for truly how long?
Braxton Bragg had resigned and William Hardee was placed in temporary command. After a bit of hemming and hawing, President Jefferson Davis selected Joe Johnston to permanently replace Bragg. Davis strongly disliked Johnston, but even more strongly disliked P.G.T. Beauregard – practically the only other officer who could replace Bragg. And so it was with a heavy heart that Davis handed the position to Johnston.
The military situation was rather bleak. The beaten army was in short supply of everything from shoes to ammunition. Morale was crashing and desertions were on the rise. Though this was well known, Davis chose to ignore it, sending Johnston a rose-tinted message with instructions to prepare for an offensive campaign that his army could not possibly undertake. According to one of Hardee’s more recent reports, the army could barely maintain its defensive position.
Unfortunately, prior to Hardee’s more realistic appraisal, he had been optimistic. And afterwards, in another report, he claimed that the army now was larger than it had been at the battle of Missionary Ridge. Additionally, Davis sent Joseph Christmas Ives to investigate for himself the condition of the army. Sending Ives, a colonel in the army with no military training or combat experience, was yet another mistake made by Davis. Ives reported that the army was in fine shape, and so when Johnston arrived, he was a little surprised in his findings (which he would write about the following day). And it was under these hardly-auspicious circumstances that Johnston arrived in Dalton to take command of the Army of Tennessee, numbering less than 37,000 men fit for battle.
For the day, Johnston simply announced to the army what they already knew – he was their new commander. Rather than staging a formal review, he toured the camps, taking in his new command. The men also took in their new commander. Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee, renowned author of Company Aytch described:
Fancy, if you please, a man of about fifty years old, rather small of stature, but firmly and compactly built, an open and honest countenance, and a keen but restless black eye, that seemed to read your very inmost thoughts. In his dress he was a perfect dandy. He ever wore the very finest clothes that could be obtained, carrying out in every point the dress and paraphernalia of the soldier, as adopted by the War Department at Richmond, never omitting anything, even to the trappings of his horse, bridle, and saddle. His hat was decorated with a star and feather, his coat with every star and embellishment, and he wore a bright new sash, big gauntlets, and silver spurs. He was the very picture of a general.
Watkins goes on to give his own impression of the army at the time Johnston took command.
Johnston, wrote Watkins, “found the army depleted by battles; and worse, yea, much worse, by desertion. The men were deserting by tens and hundreds, and I might say by thousands. The morale of the army was gone. The spirit of the soldiers was crushed, and their hope gone. The future was dark and gloomy. They would not answer roll call. Discipline had gone. A feeling of mistrust pervaded the whole army.”
The first task awaiting Johnston was to turn this around. According to Watkins, this happened quickly – almost instantaneous with the arrival of Johnston. “Wild riot was the order of the day,” he wrote of the men’s behavior prior to Johnston’s arrival, “everything was confusion worse confounded.” But when the news reached them that Joe Johnston was to take command of the Army of Tennessee, “men returned to their companies, order was restored and ‘Richard was himself again.’”1
Johnston would soon issue amnesty to all stragglers and deserters, increase the rations, deliver both tobacco and whiskey to the men twice a week. Sugar, flour, and even coffee were soon available to the men. Before long, they would have new tents and clothes, even shoes. “He allowed us,” continued Watkins, “what General Bragg had never allowed a mortal man – a furlough. He gave furloughs to one-third of his army at a time, until the whole had been furloughed. A new era had dawned; a new epoch had been dated. He passed through the ranks of the common soldier’s pride; he brought the manhood back to the private’s bosom; he changed the order of roll-call, standing guard, drill, and such nonsense as that. The revolution was complete. He was loved, respected, admired; yea, almost worshiped, by his troops.
“We soon got proud.”
Though his own men may soon be satisfied, he would first have to placate Richmond. This he would do the following day when he addressed the letters of instruction sent by Davis and Secretary of War James Seddon.2
- Incidentally, the phrase ‘Richard was himself again’ is not from Shakespeare, though it’s most often attributed to him. Rather, the actor Colley Cibber (1671-1757), added it to his rendition of Richard III in 1699. Watkins probably thought he was quoting The Bard. [↩]
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 3, p839, 860; Vol. 52, Part 2, p573, 574; Company Aytch by Samuel R. Watkins; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. [↩]